James M. Lindsay

The Water's Edge

Lindsay analyzes the politics shaping U.S. foreign policy and the sustainability of American power.

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TWE Remembers: John Kennedy Prepares to Tell the Nation About Soviet Missiles in Cuba (Cuban Missile Crisis, Day Six)

by James M. Lindsay
October 21, 2012

Secretary of State Dean Rusk, President John F. Kennedy, and Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara meet in the Cabinet Room in January 1961.(Abbie Rowe. White House Photographs. John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston) Secretary of State Dean Rusk, President John F. Kennedy, and Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara meet in the Cabinet Room in January 1961.(Abbie Rowe. White House Photographs. John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston)

Sundays are usually the one day of the week that presidents can count on for a break from their frenetic daily schedule. That wasn’t the case for John F. Kennedy on Sunday, October 21, 1962, the sixth day of the Cuban missile crisis. He would spend his day in meetings and conversations, honing what he would tell the nation and the world the next day.

Kennedy began his Sunday by attending 9:00 a.m. Mass at St. Stephen’s Church as he usually did. After returning to the White House, he met with Secretary of State Dean Rusk and Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara and reaffirmed the decision he had made the day before to impose a blockade on Cuba. He then met with Gen. Walter Sweeney, the head of the U.S. Air Force Tactical Air Command. The general confirmed what the president had learned in earlier discussions with the ExCom: an air strike would reliably destroy at most 90 percent of the Soviet missiles. So when the planes returned home, some working Soviet missiles could still be pointed at the United States.

Kennedy spent his afternoon meeting with the ExCom. The group went line-by-line through the speech that Ted Sorensen had drafted for the president to give to the nation the next night, weighing the political and diplomatic consequences of every sentence. One issue was whether Kennedy should call what the United States was about to do a “blockade” or a “quarantine.” Rusk noted that “The legal meaning of the two words is identical”; stopping ships on the high seas would constitute an act of war under international law regardless of what Washington called it. He preferred calling what the United States was about to do a “quarantine,” however, because it would allow the administration to avoid unflattering comparisons to the blockade that the Soviets had imposed on Berlin in 1948 and 1949. Kennedy accepted Rusk’s point and directed that the term “quarantine” be used.

When Kennedy was satisfied with the speech, the discussion turned to what steps the United States should take if the quarantine failed. McNamara and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Maxwell Taylor reviewed the details of two different invasion plans, both of which envisioned that the first of what would eventually become 90,000 U.S. troops would land in Cuba seven days after the air strikes began. The week-long delay between the first air strikes and the start of the invasion troubled Kennedy, who directed the military to look for prudent ways to close the gap.

As the president and his advisers worked through numerous other issues raised by the impending quarantine, State Department officials were busy drafting letters from Kennedy to forty-three world leaders, including Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, British prime minister Harold Macmillan, French president Charles de Gaulle, West German chancellor Konrad Adenauer, and Indian prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru. The letters, which U.S. embassies would deliver the next day, explained what the United States had found in Cuba, why it needed to act, and what it was looking to achieve. The administration was looking to spur U.S. allies to rally around the American position and to minimize the criticism from countries more skeptical of Washington’s intentions.

The American public knew nothing of Kennedy’s hectic Sunday schedule. Careful readers of the Washington Post might have suspected something was up; the paper had reported that morning on unusual activity at U.S. military bases in the southeast and concluded that “the sudden appearance of the Marines and their equipment [in Key West] sparked wide speculation as to their ultimate objective in this Cuba-conscious city just 90 miles from Havana.” But for most Americans, October 21 was a typical fall Sunday full of family, friends, and football. Nothing had happened of note. But that was about to change.

For other posts in this series or for more information on the Cuban missile crisis, click here.

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